December 2019

Wasted opportunities

Is better architecture the solution to waste in the construction industry?

A STORY: Much has been written about waste in the construction industry, particularly when talking about wasted energy. As architects we have the power to influence all aspects of the built environment throughout the life of a project. We clearly have enough control over the design process to impact on waste in the design, construction and use of our buildings; that is well understood. There are however, bigger questions about where we build, what we build or whether we should build at all. Poor answers to these questions can create such environmentally costly mistakes, that considerations around good insulation or low energy appliances pale into insignificance.

In my own experience, the public view of architects is often polarised between technician and dreamer. In the popular media architects are vilified for daring to push the envelope of design to create better spaces or similarly scorned for their inevitable technical failings. In reality of course, we have a responsibility to be both realistic and optimistic and being very good at one, does not excuse a failing in the other. In practice as well as in teaching I find myself discussing at great lengths, the beauty of a metaphorical wheel, that in all its rectilinear elegance and detail, simply will not roll and yet there it is, ready to present or worse, to build. Reduction in waste in the construction industry tends to focus on our technical ability to deliver “better” buildings. To create higher insulation values, to install more intelligent ventilation systems or use materials with lower embodied energy. Of course these are valuable pursuits, which have a direct impact on the energy we use, but these are issues best controlled through legislation and systematic change in construction practices. The framework for this process is an integral part of the construction process through Building Regulations. The burden of waste could be moved from end user to house builder. In the construction industry and particularly in residential buildings, the principle of “the polluter pays” doesn’t hold true if the houses we can reasonably buy, simply aren’t good enough.

“But what do we mean when we say that our buildings are not good enough? To me the most wasteful thing we can do is to build the wrong thing.”

Rod Moreno Masey

We are lucky enough to work on some exceptional projects for clients, who value quality of space and materials over everything else. We regularly work on historic buildings in central London where the most basic tools of sustainability are simply not available to us. So much of central residential London is made up of heritage buildings, hundreds of years old. These buildings are where they are and don’t lend themselves easily to super-insulation or on site micro-generation. In these buildings, we are left asking ourselves what else could we do? When I look at any building I have a different way of looking at embodied waste.

Building owners and architects are often demonised for ripping out a perfectly good house or gutting a building to start again and I won’t defend the needless waste that I see everyday in buildings through a misplaced belief that old is bad and new is good. However, when admonishing the construction industry, we rarely ask the question “Is old always good?”

The question really needs to be re-phrased to ask whether what is existing, is always good and expanded to ask whether what is new is always bad. When we appraise existing buildings we always make one important distinction. In simple terms, some things are “historic” and some are merely “existing”. Historic fabric in old buildings has inherent value, not only through its cultural significance but also through its innate existence – it’s already there. Existing is something altogether different. Existing is a summation of the original building (good or bad) and all the things that have happened to it during its life. The subject of historic value and the story of the building is perhaps a discussion for another time. When tasked with deciding the value of existing buildings, we have a simple conceptual approach. Keep what is good, change what is bad.

So much of what happens to buildings over the course of their numerous and diverse uses and adaptions is either of poor quality or simply incompatible with subsequent occupations. If we judge existing as good, we miss the opportunity to wash away the incremental compromises a building has suffered, that individually serve to chip away at the overall elegance of a finished project and together can suffocate a building entirely. Poor existing buildings, borne out of cheap, ad hoc conversion are a necessary reality of a past focused on quantity over quality and action before consideration. It is an inevitable challenge we face in all existing buildings. What we shouldn’t tolerate however is poor design – awkward, thoughtless or fashionable whimsy that leaves a permanent scar on our urban landscape or building fabric and a burden those that follow to repair the damage and mitigate the waste.

I remain optimistic that through a combination of legislation and enlightened clients, we can push the technical performance of the buildings we create to minimise their waste in construction and in use. However, I am also realistic that our client’s spatial, financial and even aesthetic concerns will often overshadow or eclipse our most earnest aspirations to build sustainably. That is a technical challenge, but we must also be dreamers.

Beyond simply meeting our brief and thoughtlessly adding a lump here or creating a hole there, our work should investigate everything a building could be, with a deeper understanding of how we occupy spaces in our everyday lives and how we might occupy them as our future selves. Instead of presenting clients with an answer to the question they asked, it is our job to make sure they are asking the right question. It is our job to make sure that the answer to that question remains relevant and timeless.

When we talk about waste in the construction industry we need look no further as architects, than wasted opportunities to make enduring changes in the spaces we build, that will stand the test of time. Buildings that are technically exceptional should simply be the new normal. But if we truly want to reduce the wasted energy in new construction and the waste of embodied energy in unspent, unfashionable materials sent to landfill we need to be thoughtful and thorough in the things we build. Good architecture is appropriate, considered and timeless. Good design is never wasteful. Measure twice, cut once.